520 U.S. 397 (1997), 95-1100, Board of Comm'rs of Bryan County v. Brown

Docket Nº:Case No. 95-1100
Citation:520 U.S. 397, 117 S.Ct. 1382, 137 L.Ed.2d 626, 65 U.S.L.W. 4286
Case Date:April 28, 1997
Court:United States Supreme Court

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520 U.S. 397 (1997)

117 S.Ct. 1382, 137 L.Ed.2d 626, 65 U.S.L.W. 4286



BROWN et al.

Case No. 95-1100

United States Supreme Court

April 28, 1997

Argued November 5, 1996



Jill Brown (hereinafter respondent) brought this 42 U.S.C.§ 1983 damages action against petitioner county, alleging, among other things, that its Deputy Burns had arrested her with excessive force, and that it was liable for her injuries because its Sheriff Moore had hired Burns without adequately reviewing his background. Burns had pleaded guilty to various driving infractions and other misdemeanors, including assault and battery. Moore, whom the county stipulated was its Sheriff's Department policy maker, testified that he had obtained Burns' driving and criminal records, but had not closely reviewed either before hiring Burns. The District Court denied the county's motions for judgment as a matter of law, which asserted that a policy maker's single hiring decision could not give rise to §1983 municipal liability. Respondent prevailed following a jury trial, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed, holding that the county was properly found liable based on Moore's decision to hire Burns.


The county is not liable for Sheriff Moore's isolated decision to hire Burns without adequate screening, because respondent has not demonstrated that the decision reflected a conscious disregard for a high risk that Burns would use excessive force in violation of respondent's federally protected right. Pp. 402-416.

(a) A municipality may not be held liable under §1983 solely because it employs a tortfeasor, see, e. g., Monell v. NewYork City Dept. of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 692. Instead, the plaintiff must identify a municipal "policy" or "custom" that caused the injury. See, e. g., Pembaur v. Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 480-481. Contrary to respondent's contention, a "policy" giving rise to liability cannot be established merely by identifying a policy maker's conduct that is properly attributable to the municipality. The plaintiff must also demonstrate that, through its deliberate conduct, the municipality was the "moving force" behind the injury alleged. See Monell, supra, at 694. That is, a plaintiff must show that the municipal action was taken with the requisite degree of culpability and must demonstrate a direct causal link between the municipal action and the deprivation of federal rights. Pp. 402-404.

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(b) Respondent's claim that a policy maker's single facially lawful hiring decision can trigger municipal liability presents difficult problems of proof. This Court has recognized a § 1983 cause of action based on a single decision attributable to a municipality only where the evidence that the municipality had acted and that the plaintiff had suffered a deprivation of federal rights also proved fault and causation. See, e. g., Pembaur, supra, at 481. In relying heavily on Pembaur, respondent blurs the distinction between §1983 cases that present no difficult fault and causation questions and those that do. Claims such as the present, which do not involve an allegation that the municipal action itself violated federal law or directed or authorized the deprivation of federal rights, require application of rigorous culpability and causation standards in order to ensure that the municipality is not held liable solely for its employees' actions. In Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, for example, the Court held that a plaintiff seeking to establish municipal liability on the theory that a facially lawful municipal action—there, an allegedly inadequate training program —has led an employee to violate a plaintiff's rights must demonstrate that the municipal action was not simply negligent, but was taken with "deliberate indifference" as to its known or obvious consequences. Id., at 388. Respondent's reliance on Canton for an analogy between failure-to-train cases and inadequate screening cases is not persuasive. In leaving open the possibility that municipal liability could be triggered by evidence of a single violation of federal rights, accompanied by a showing that the municipality has failed to train its employees to handle recurring situations presenting an obvious potential for such a violation, id., at 390, and n. 10, the Canton Court simply hypothesized that, in this narrow range of circumstances, the violation may be a highly predictable consequence of the failure to train and thereby justify a finding of "deliberate indifference" by policy makers. Predicting the consequence of a single hiring decision, even one based on an inadequate assessment of a record, is far more difficult. Only where adequate scrutiny of the applicant's background would lead a reasonable policy maker to conclude that the plainly obvious consequence of the decision to hire the applicant would be the deprivation of a third party's federally protected right can the official's failure to adequately scrutinize the applicant's background constitute "deliberate indifference." Neither the District Court nor the Court of Appeals directly tested whether Burns' background made his use of excessive force in making an arrest a plainly obvious consequence of the hiring decision. Pp. 404-412.

(c) Even assuming without deciding that proof of a single instance of inadequate screening could ever trigger municipal liability, Moore's failure to scrutinize Burns' record cannot constitute "deliberate

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indifference" to respondent's federally protected right to be free from the use of excessive force. To test the link between Moore's action and respondent's injury, it must be asked whether a full review of Burns' record reveals that Moore should have concluded that Burns' use of excessive force would be a plainly obvious consequence of his decision to hire Burns. Respondent's showing on this point was inadequate because the primary infractions on which she relies to prove Burns' propensity for violence arose from a single college fight. A full review of Burns' record might well have led Moore to conclude that Burns was an extremely poor deputy candidate, but he would not necessarily have reached that decision because Burns' use of excessive force would have been a plainly obvious consequence of the decision to hire him. The District Court therefore erred in submitting the inadequate screening theory to the jury. Pp. 412-415.

67 F.3d 1174, vacated and remanded.

O'Connor, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, JJ., joined. Souter, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Stevens and Breyer, JJ., joined, post, p. 416. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Stevens and Ginsburg, JJ., joined, post, p. 430.

Wallace B. Jefferson argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs was Sharon E. Callaway.

Bryan J. Serr argued the cause for respondent Brown. With him on the brief were J. Kermit Hill and Duke Walker. [*]

Justice O'Connor delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent Jill Brown brought a claim for damages against petitioner Bryan County under Rev. Stat. § 1979, 42 U.S.C. § 1983. She alleged that a county police officer used

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excessive force in arresting her, and that the county itself was liable for her injuries based on its sheriff's hiring and training decisions. She prevailed on her claims against the county following a jury trial, and the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the judgment against the county on the basis of the hiring claim alone. 67 F.3d 1174 (1995). We granted certiorari. We conclude that the Court of Appeals' decision cannot be squared with our recognition that, in enacting § 1983, Congress did not intend to impose liability on a municipality unless deliberate action attributable to the municipality itself is the "moving force" behind the plaintiff's deprivation of federal rights. Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978).


In the early morning hours of May 12, 1991, Jill Brown (hereinafter respondent) and her husband were driving from Grayson County, Texas, to their home in Bryan County, Oklahoma. After crossing into Oklahoma, they approached a police checkpoint. Mr. Brown, who was driving, decided to avoid the checkpoint and return to Texas. After seeing the Browns' truck turn away from the checkpoint, Bryan County Deputy Sheriff Robert Morrison and Reserve Deputy Stacy Burns pursued the vehicle. Although the parties' versions of events differ, at trial both deputies claimed that their patrol car reached speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. Mr. Brown testified that he was unaware of the deputies' attempts to overtake him. The chase finally ended four miles south of the police checkpoint.

After he got out of the squad car, Deputy Sheriff Morrison pointed his gun toward the Browns' vehicle and ordered the Browns to raise their hands. Reserve Deputy Burns, who was unarmed, rounded the corner of the vehicle on the passenger's side. Burns twice ordered respondent from the vehicle. When she did not exit, he used an "arm bar" technique, grabbing respondent's arm at the wrist and elbow,

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pulling her from the vehicle, and spinning her to the ground. Respondent's knees were severely injured, and she later underwent corrective surgery. Ultimately, she may need knee replacements.

Respondent sought compensation for her injuries under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law from Burns, Bryan County Sheriff B. J. Moore, and the county itself. Respondent claimed, among other things, that Bryan County was liable for Burns' alleged use of excessive force based on Sheriff Moore's decision to hire Burns, the son of his nephew. Specifically, respondent claimed that Sheriff Moore had failed to adequately...

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